My parents never valued television enough to invest in anything aside from a TV set. As a child, I watched lots of PBS and a little bit of network programming—mostly cartoons. It wasn’t until high school, when exposed to cable and public access, that I understood the rapidly expanding breadth of viewing options. Cable darlings like MTV and Comedy Central were pretty cool, but I was absolutely fascinated by cable access. Here, real people, many of them completely insane, displayed their creativity and quirks for the handful of dedicated kooks willing to invest the money for pay TV and the time to wade through the backchannels. Who the hell ever thought the self-broadcasters, over-sharers, and the borderline narcissists of public access are poised to overtake mainstream television’s popularity?
Sure, classic programming has its place in the world, but Millennials, post-Millennials, and other techistas raised on reality television are flipping channels to fresher streams—a different kind of programming with a different kind of content. The most popular video sharing sites like YouTube, Vimeo, and Daily Motion are giving rise to an old viewing experience wrapped in a new skin, as well as creating a new type of celebrity, one capable of circumventing mainstream celebrity-makers and racking up a huge numbers of viewers. By empowering Jane and Jose Doe, the new networks are making their established predecessors very nervous.
I have to admit, I’ve never owned a DVR, but I love its style. Anything that lets you skip commercials is fantastic in my book. However, after a while, clever advertisers managed to fool DVRs with more innocuous product placement and program-commercial tie-ins that pretend they’re part of the show. Touché, advertising. If anything, the DVR affected the habits of millions of television viewers, opening the doors for streaming video on-demand (VOD) channels online. The real appeal of modern streaming networks is cutting out the middle manager. Why worry about skipping commercials when you can just download the whole damn show and enjoy it uninterrupted?
Several years ago, Steve Jobs summed up modern video consumers while talking about AppleTV (which was in development at the time): “They want Hollywood movies and TV shows whenever they want them.” While his statement rings true for on-demand streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix, it doesn’t explain why billions of people flock to sites like YouTube to watch cat videos when Hulu brings us movies, documentaries, and TV shows overflowing with cats. The secret to cable access 2.0’s success is in their rawness, their lack-of-prepackaging. While third generation networks like Netflix and Hulu may unleash a stream of movies and shows onto my laptop, they don’t embody the I-filmed-myself-discussing-my-latest-bowel-movement hyper-realism or the rant appeal of video-sharing channels.
A Generation Raised on “Reality”
I wasn’t surprised when YouTube gripped the upcoming generation by the throat. To anyone born in the late 80’s or early 90’s, reality TV was de rigueur. Making the leap from watching semi-scripted live action with confessional-styled cutaways, to producing, directing, and editing (apply air quotes liberally) your life story for the web is merely a sidle away. And with the advancement and proliferation of webcams, free editing suites, digital sound recording technology, and inexpensive nausea-decreasing video cameras, YouTube was perched to create its own milieu of stars with a worldwide audience.
From South Park-featured PewDiePie (who raked in millions of subscribers commenting on video games) to Just Kidding News (who make their bread talking smack about the news) to Smosh (who comment on amusing videos, images, and articles), an entire segment of the populace is bypassing the standard channels to celebrity status and building a substantial repeat audience that would give network execs a love buzz. Of course, I imagine their circumvented popularity also has traditional media impresarios clocking hundreds of hours with market focus groups. With ratings that range from several hundred thousand views to near thirty million subscribers, the next wave of television stars have never actually been on TV, and that’s kind of the point.
In Dan Dobi’s 2013 documentary, Please Subscribe, he explores why being a video luminary isn’t the same as being a Hollywood star at all. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to have a pretty face or some entertaining skills, but VOD celebs have one common denominator: they’re unpolished. “This is an unfiltered human being. A more honest voice,” Dobi says. Having the skill to edit a video, design for sound, or even light a room isn’t as important as being real. Sharing your feelings, views, and beliefs in an uncensored environment seems to be one of the keys to success for these streaming celebs.
Of course, gaining a massive following involves more than just realism. It takes a lot of luck, an accidental (or purposeful) marketing savvy, an unnatural drive, and a dedication, at least to being true to thine own self. Another shared trait of the queens and kings of cable access 2.0: an earnest likability. With a few exceptions, the bulk of video stars come across as someone we’d have a beer (or coffee) with. Sure there seems to be an inherent narcissism to self-broadcasting, which might be a generational trait, but VOD personalities come across as genuine and agreeable—a far cry from the untouchable limousines, red carpet, and gold statues of their Hollywood counterparts.
As the curtain closes on the latest viral video I’m watching (or more so, the little swirly thing starts swirling), I’m struck by the ironic nature of these new networks and their stars. Whether or not they realize it, these DIY mavens are the antithesis to the traditional celebrity model. Born the children of reality TV, they rebel against the coaxed, groomed, and scripted nature of postmodern “real” life by imitating it. In aping reality television’s constructs, they became real people with a cult of celebrity behind them and followers who are legitimately interested in them and their lives. And, since collecting millions of followers by being yourself isn’t something an image factory can replicate, it’s no wonder the old guard is watching nervously.